Dead in the water

Bothered by shrinking catches, growing regulations and a sense of frustration, Galveston Bay's shrimpers say that they, not the shrimp, are the endangered species.

Early on a recent June morning, C.L. Standley stood on the deck of his 45-foot-long trawler, the Captain Clyde, and waited expectantly as his deck hand dumped out the contents of a small "try" net for his inspection. To the west, the moon was setting above Dickinson Bayou; west beyond that, in Houston, most people were still twisting in their beds, trying to capture those last few hours of deep sleep before they had to be up and off to their jobs. Standley, though, had been up for his job a while. He had arisen around 2 a.m., arrived at the dock in Dickinson an hour or so later, and then checked over his boat before chugging out into Galveston Bay at close to 4 a.m.

His schedule was set by the need to get to his fishing spot early. He wanted to be ready to drop his nets a half-hour before dawn, the first moment the state says it's legal for him to do so. "Here we are at the full moon," he had said a little earlier in the darkened pilot house, looking up at the glowing disc that cast a pale, soft light on the waves being churned up by his trawler, "and there ought to be shrimp. Now, they do one of two things: they either bury up, which is good, for it means they're not leaving, and usually when they bury up and come back, they'll be a larger size. Or else they've left, which is bad for us, and good for Mexico, which is where they'll drift."

Standley, 57, has been contemplating such questions of the moon, the tides and the movement of crustaceans for two decades. A sturdy man with narrow hips and forearms made muscular from hauling nets, he grew up on a rice farm near Alvin, 20 miles or so from Galveston Bay. If his father hadn't died suddenly of a heart attack when Standley was in high school, he might have stuck with farming. He sold agricultural chemicals for a while, then taught junior high science for eight years in the Alvin area. During the summers, he tried shrimping for fun, and, he says, it got into his blood. About half of Galveston Bay's shrimpers were born into shrimping, Standley estimates, while the rest, like him, have come to it from outside, attracted by the independence of the life and the forces of nature on the water, at times both beautiful and terrifying.

For most of his time on the water, Standley has had little reason to question his decision to go into shrimping. The work is hard, but the returns, both emotionally and financially, make it worthwhile. In recent years, though, some bay shrimpers have begun to wonder if they might be the last of their breed. They feel squeezed on one side by competition from the large commercial shrimping fleets that ply the Gulf of Mexico -- and which would be happy to see all the bay shrimp grow large and migrate out to the Gulf, where they instead of the smaller-time bay shrimpers could catch them. On another side, they feel pressured by competition from a growing international shrimp aquaculture industry. And they also feel squeezed by what they consider to be restrictive and unnecessary state and federal rules that do everything from limit the actual number of people who can legally shrimp in Texas' bays to imply that bay shrimpers are mainly to blame for the deaths of protected sea turtles.

Given the number of bay shrimpers in Texas -- statewide, the bay shrimping fleet is now counted at around 2,000 boats -- these concerns haven't moved much beyond the shrimpers' home ports. The Gulf shrimpers may have the Texas Shrimp Association to give them financial and political clout, but the 300 or so Galveston Bay shrimpers have little more than themselves, their frustrations and the feeling that they, like the family farmer, should be listed somewhere, by someone, on an endangered species list.

Dressed in spotless blue jeans, a blue denim work shirt and the shrimper's characteristic white rubber boots, C.L. Standley hardly fits the stereotype of the shrimper in a dirty T-shirt, drinking up his profits at a dockside beer joint. He has two grown daughters, and, after a long marriage, he and his wife went their separate ways three years ago. He likes to go skiing in Colorado in the winter, and has been courting a woman he met there. Well respected by Galveston Bay fishermen, Standley is chairman of the Shrimp Advisory Committee for Texas Parks and Wildlife. A patient, calm man, he moves deliberately among the winches and cables of his side-rigged trawler. He must have been a good science teacher, for he likes to explain things, and there is plenty of time for that during the hours in which the Captain Clyde drags its nets along the bottom of Galveston Bay.

Before beginning his drag, Standley set the automatic pilot and methodically arranged the net on its winch before dropping it. He took special care that the federally required turtle excluder device, or TED, didn't become twisted and dump his catch back into the Bay. Galveston Bay's fishermen think it's ridiculous that they're required to pull TEDs, because most of the turtle deaths attributed to shrimpers have occurred in the Gulf. Standley says in more than 20 years he has caught a dozen turtles in his nets, and except for a dead one that had been struck by a propeller, all of them were alive and kicking when he returned them to the water.

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